The Fable of the Shoes

by Rand Simberg on September 21, 2011 · 16 comments

in Culture, Politics as Usual, Space

Jonah Goldberg praises Ron Paul’s stance on health care, and takes to task the status-quo bias of even many Republicans, recalling the thought experiment by Murray Rothbard:

“So identified has the State become in the public mind with the provision of these services,” Rothbard laments, “that an attack on State financing appears to many people as an attack on the service itself.” The libertarian who wants to get the government out of a certain business is “treated in the same way as he would be if the government had, for various reasons, been supplying shoes as a tax-financed monopoly from time immemorial.”

If everyone had always gotten their shoes from the government, writes Rothbard, the proponent of shoe privatization would be greeted as a kind of lunatic. “How could you?” defenders of the status quo would squeal. “You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes . . . if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? . . . What material would they use? . . . Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?”

Such a bias toward the status quo similarly infects our thinking and debate on space policy. The highest achievement in the minds of many was landing a man on the moon, and such a feat is viewed as the epitome of a human spaceflight program, and the only model to follow. Ignoring the issue of the pork, such thinking resulted in the Constellation plan (“Apollo on Steroids”) and now it’s giving us the disastrous Senate Launch System (as I discussed over at Pajamas Media yesterday). It’s what I have called the Apollo Cargo Cult — in too many minds, if we don’t have a really big rocket developed and operated by NASA, we don’t have a Real Space Program.

The problem is that, while (fortunately) the government hasn’t always supplied shoes, in the minds of too many, it has always supplied human spaceflight, and when you propose to do it in any other way, no matter how much more cost effective, the same cries arise: “Are you crazy?! Why do you hate space exploration?! Spaceflight is hard! Only NASA knows how to put people into space! Who is going to do it if not NASA? These people are just hobbyists in garages! What if all of the commercial companies fail and go out of business?! (Yes, people really ask that.) What if they can’t hit their cost targets? What material will they use? What if we can’t store propellant in orbit?”

Like people who can’t imagine life without a government post office, or air traffic control (it’s private in Switzerland), or other things with which they have no experience, they can’t conceive of space activities that don’t consist of a few government employees on top of a really big rocket, with lots more government employees at desks in control rooms directing the show.

For these people, there will be no convincing them until there is an existence proof. There actually was, last December, when SpaceX put their pressurized Dragon capsule into orbit and returned it safely to earth, a feat that only three countries have performed, and no other private company has to date. While it had no life-support system per se, it was a sufficiently short trip that a company employee could have been aboard with a scuba tank and a bean-bag chair and had, in Elon Musk’s words at the press conference after, a “pretty nice ride.” And it might have gone some of the distance to shutting up the naysayers, except that if they had, this time they would be decrying the cavalier approach to “safety” and offered it up as proof that commercial companies weren’t to be trusted with the lives of astronauts, which are apparently so precious that they can’t be risked on actual spaceflight.

Of course, even after SpaceX (or Boeing, or others) do actually launch people into orbit, with a launch abort system and life support, the doubters will just move the goal posts. “Well, sure they can get people into space, but only NASA knows how to go to the moon! And you can’t do it without a really big rocket. Because that’s how we did it in Apollo!” “Well, OK, so they flew someone around the moon, but they haven’t landed anyone there. Only NASA knows how to do that! With a really big rocket!” “Well, OK, so they landed on the moon, but they didn’t stay very long. Because their rocket wasn’t big enough.” “So, they have a lunar mining facility, and now they’ve landed on Mars. Big deal. NASA has a twenty-year plan to go to Saturn. With a really big rocket.”

Assuming that NASA even exists by then, of course. Perhaps by then we’ll have finally changed the status quo.

Vake September 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Air traffic control is privatized in Canada too (Nav Canada).

Helge September 22, 2011 at 2:32 am

Post offices are privatized in Norway.

JohnHunt September 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Rand, You make many very good points.

But I’d like to question whether commercial companies will be doing the things that NASA did/does if only the government got out of the way. They certainly wood if there is profit to be made. So, if the government were to stop giving away shoes (or even selling them at a deep discount), yes, commercial companies would fill what would be a sizeable market demand.

But exploration beyond Earth orbit probably doesn’t have a sufficient market. If NASA hadn’t gone to the Moon, likely, no commercial corporation would have done that by now because they could not have closed the business case. Would you agree? Likewise, there is clearly a market for LEO satellites but not a sufficient market for probes to the outer solar system.

So, I see these levels:
– LEO – comm sats = commercial, Earth observatory = mixed.
– Circum lunar = mixed with tourist round trips starting in a few years.
– Lunar mining & base = NASA funding of commercial initially (e.g. Lunar COTS) but with goal of shifting to full commercial.
– Mars = Likewise NASA funding of commercial to establish the first base and when there is enough cheap traffic, commercial flights for multi-millionare colonists.

Michael Pelletier September 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm

JohnHunt – you see those levels, but that’s the thing about a free, unfettered market – I’m sure that there are levels that will evolve and grow that nobody has even thought of yet.

Robert Horning September 23, 2011 at 12:35 am

At the moment, the toughest problem facing commercial rocketry is ITAR restrictions that pretty much keeps America as a second rate country for bringing in commercial contracts from foreign sources (or foreign governments for that matter).

This said, I do agree that the commercial applications are pretty limited, and most of the markets are pretty saturated. BTW, one huge market not mentioned in the list above is telecommunications, which is big business in space on the order of billions of dollars for this one activity alone. A potential emergent market would also be logistics suppliers, particularly for point to point sub-orbital systems (“when it positively, absolutely has to be there yesterday”) although orbital logistic centers could also be very valuable where you could have “just in time delivery” with a notification window of just an hour or two to any location in the world. There are some devices like a high-end network router or a chip fabrication component that the value of getting that device to wherever it is needed would certainly exceed the cost of a launch.

Note I haven’t even touched space tourism or extra-terrestrial mining here. Yes, there are opportunities to make some money in space because it is space and the unique environment that presents.

Elmar_M September 21, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Great post Rand!
Pretty much sums up my feelings.

Ghostbuster September 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I really, REALLY, REEEEEEEEEEEEEEALY, wish you hadn’t gotten me started on this issue! (No, I DID wish you hadn’t gotten me started on this…) I had forgotten the email and had to fish it out of deleted items to respond to it. That, in light of a newspaper article I read over the weekend.

With all due respect to any and all, I have to weigh in on this. NASA, space flights and the myriad innovations that go along with them DO belong under the purview of the United States Government. (Uh, a government that actually supports it!)

I can give you three reasons, all of which transcend the arguments of private enterprise verses Statist control. (Cocksure, ain’t I?!) First, and foremost, putting a person on the moon, developing and launching a telescope that can count the number of ice particles on a dead moon in another galaxy or building and maintaining a geostationary biosphere 23,000 miles above the planet, is a bit different that dropping a postcard in a rusty mailbox or telling a veteran airline pilot which tarmac to taxi onto.

In those two elementary examples, the private entities get paid – or have gotten paid – by the time they provide the service. And while we’re on the subject, how’s that “privatized postal service” working out for us?! AS well, didn’t the government have to step in and fire a bunch of unionized ATCs who put their customers in danger just because they wanted better working conditions? (Don’t they always?!) All that is to say, if this blog activist wants to compare services to intrusion, they’ll have to do better than a pair of weak similes.

The point is, the space program is not a startup operation. It is a massive enterprise dependent on multiple components and time critical results. More important, though, it is a diametrically opposite paradigm from the capitalist model. To enumerate a few differences:

- It is not designed to turn a profit.
- The residual technology and benefits immediately go into the public domain. Unlike private business, nearly anyone can profit from the results and without franchising said results, paying royalties or fighting off patent infringements.
- It is funded, not by venture capitalists, but by the taxpayer; the ones most likely to benefit from the results. (Probably the ONLY government operation whereby “redistribution of wealth” makes any sense at all!)
- The government, as the driving force, can wait years – decades, even – for results. Name a corporate interest that can release an IPO with the tag line, “Invest now and maybe your great grandchildren will reap some rewards.”
- Finally, government “investors” can’t bail when the venture has setbacks. (Reference Apollo 1, Apollo 13 and the 2 Space Shuttle disasters.) Nor is it a speculative venture where the investors can opt in and out depending on their own immediate financial needs.

I’m sure there are more – Let me say, I know there are more. – differences between free market and government. As a rule, give me the free market anytime. But NOT with the space program. Besides, all the above is only reason #1.

The second reason is, space truly is the “final frontier” – of military significance. When Yuri Gagarin first orbited the Big Blue Marble back in 1961, (A 50 year anniversary we shamefully ignored!) it was more than just an embarrassment to the USA. It was a black eye; a direct slap at the “insignificant technology” of the US, while the rest of the world (Including many of our allies.) heralded both the feat and the Cosmonaut as a world changing event. (It was and JFK was p!ssed off!)

We wisely entered the space race. After all, the country that beat us into space also had a few thousand nukes pointed at WADC! It was a must for military purposes. (The gist of this 2nd reason.) Or need I remind anyone that just the Reagan threat of SDI ended the Cold War and ultimately disassembled the USSR? Berlin Wall? Any of that matter?

Space has borders. In the 21st century, those borders are protected only by the technological (military) superiority of one country over the other. Does anyone really want to see that advantage put in the hands of competing interests that make their decisions based on the DJIA?! Or would we rather have a presently advantageous and future-driven program that will keep hostile forces from, say, punching a hole in the ozone over Omaha and frying a few million Cornhuskers?

It’s this simple. The link discussed the question of whether private industry could out-tech the government and (ideally) provide a greater service to humanity. If that were the only question, I’d be on board with industry. But aren’t we putting our “space race” eggs in a basket similar to health insurance and oil industries that we so often curse as having nothing but “greedy ambitions?” (Or, maybe someone like GE will get a leg up on start-up ventures and then take the technology overseas! Hey, it could happen!)

If that isn’t enough to tip the scales, how about the fact that once industry does create some high flying starship, the government will franchise it via eminent domain in the name of – Wait for it! – “National Interests,” and then try to come up to speed on the technology.

Finally, (third) what kind of hypocrites are we, anyway?! I intended to email you anyway and raise hell about the liberal ideology of palming the space program off on corporate America while screaming to high Heaven that the government is cutting subsidies to – Are you ready?! – AMTRAK!!!

Now, am I the one looking at this wrong?

It is, after all, just my opinion.

Pat C September 22, 2011 at 8:14 am

Vake beat me to it. Wish we could do the same here in the US, maybe we’d finally have a chance to bring our ATC system into the 21st century. Even the late 20th century would be an improvement…

What so many people can’t seem to get their heads around is that NASA didn’t really *build* any of those vehicles. Last I checked, Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman, et al, were all private companies. One would think they still have the resident expertise to get ‘er done today.

Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Boeing seems pretty committed to their CST-100 capsule. But I reckon they’re just hobbyists working out of their garage.

Dave September 22, 2011 at 10:01 am

Please explain to me the difference between a congressional appropriation going to ULA versus a congressional appropriation going to SpaceX. Do they magically stop being tax dollars because the government likes SpaceX this week instead of Boeing?

If the argument is, “fixed price saves money,” then sure, you’re right. Fixed price is also a lousy way to do RDT&E intensive programs, which spaceflight beyond LEO remains.

Rand Simberg September 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm

If the argument is, “fixed price saves money,” then sure, you’re right. Fixed price is also a lousy way to do RDT&E intensive programs, which spaceflight beyond LEO remains.

Right now, we’d just be happy if NASA will get out of the LEO business, and focus on the beyond.

Tobias Cabral September 22, 2011 at 10:12 am

Excellent points, on which I’ve blogged ( in the past. Bill Whittle has also characteristically incisively noted the irony that the US sought to outcompete the top-heavy, Big Government Soviet space program…by creating one of its own! And now, even after the USSR has morphed into a gangster-capitalist syndicate of a state, the US space program apparently *still* has not gotten the memo that networks are better than stovepipes. It is maddening to behold!

Still, it is a thing most fervently to be hoped that, for a time, Beeg Goverrnment will just grind along in its bootless quest to rekindle the paternalistic monument that was Apollo –including the “Space Launch System” (which will never see Space, will Launch a thousand congressional oversight hearings, and highlights everything that’s wrong with the System). Meanwhile the private sector will be able to develop its wares, relatively unmolested, like a couple of hobbits tramping along on the plains of Mordor, right under the Great Eye, escaping its notice till it’s too late.

A Swiss September 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Air traffic control is a limited company in Switzerland. However, over 99 % of all shares are held by the Swiss Confederation (eg the Swiss Federal State).

Vladislaw September 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Rand, some of your best here. It doesn’t seem to matter what private space does, all that happens is the goal posts are moved and is used to show that commercial space isn’t NASA.

When SpaceX launches a Dragon capsule later this year ( if Russia gets in the two Soyuz crew launches to the ISS) we know what will be said. “Ya but they haven’t launched a crew”. When they do launch a crew it will be “Ya but they haven’t landed on the moon”. It is a no win arguement, unless NASA does it, it never actually happened.

epobirs September 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm

It is more than just a question of whether the vehicle is built by NASA or a private contractor. Operations are done by NASA and this has long been regarded as retarding the evolution of a competitive market for space access services. A group of various scientists and other interested parties gathered by Jerry Pournelle pointed this out in a report sent to then President Reagan in the wake of the Challenger disaster. It was also published by the L5 Society. (I’m preparing a version to be made available on the Kindle and Nook stores soon.) The problems were understood 25 years ago but change has been glacially slow.

Don Rodrigo September 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Rand, didn’t someone on your Transterrestrial Musings site refer to the Falcon 9 as a “toy rocket?” A vehicle with the capability of the Saturn 1-B a toy rocket?

My favorite “argument” is that “private space companies” should get no federal funding for development at all, despite the fact that the Big Boys of aerospace operate almost entirely off of federal funding for R&D.

Robbins Mitchell September 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Well,personally I hope Rothbard is burning in hell….he showed his true colors to me back in ’75 the day Saigon fell….he called it :”a great day for liberty’..

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